“Ask a Former Drunk” is a five-part advice series running on Tuesdays. Read last week’s installment here.
I am a binge drinker, and have put myself in countless unsafe (and questionably consensual) sexual experiences. The first time I blacked out was the first time I drank. I was in Madrid and 18. I read your book, and your anxiety post-blackout is my same anxiety post-blackout. Your justification of one, or two, or fuck it four more drinks, is what I do all too often.
For me, it’s all or nothing. Perrier or 7 drinks in a few hours.
I removed hundreds (truly hundreds) of photos of myself off my Facebook and Instagram. All the photos were at the same bars, with the same “friends,” with the same glossy eyes and wobbly legs.
What I’ve decided to do next is really scary. I don’t trust my will anymore, so I want to stop drinking. I have been in therapy for a year, but am truly starting my journey of sobriety ... today.
I have a question and would love to hear your advice. How did you deal with being around friends (and acquaintances, and family members, and strangers) who are drinking when you aren’t? I find it really hard to be around drunk people when I’m sober. I get mad at people who drink around me when I’m sober (hence why I usually just joined them). Do you have any advice for this type of situation?
You did a hard thing today. Before I address anything else in this letter, I want to congratulate you on that. Whether this change lasts for five days, two weeks, or 20 years, you stared down your own life, which is a bit like opening up three years of credit card bills in one sitting. It can be so hard to confront the messes we’ve made. It’s much easier to drink away the discomfort. I did that for many years. The problem with drinking away problems is that you often end up making new and bigger problems.
By the way, I can’t count the number of times a phrase like “questionably consensual sexual experiences” has shown up in letters to me. We’re going to talk about this next week, so I hope you’ll come back. Sex and consent is a huge reckoning for women coming out of the drinking life, because one of the habits we develop over the years is to drink even more, hoping to ease the pain and guilt and shame of sexual trauma. It makes sense at the time, right? Numb those horrific feelings with some Chardonnay and tap back in to your own bad self. But getting too drunk can open a chute into new kinds of guilt and shame.
I swear 80 percent of what I talk about with drinkers could be boiled down to this equation: “Problem + loads of alcohol = Bigger problem.” This holds true for sex, finances, work, relationships, body image, you name it. But when you are accustomed to using alcohol to fix your troubles, emptying those bottles can leave you pretty lost. The first six months after I quit drinking was me squinting at a new equation: “Problem — alcohol = What the hell do I do???”
Your question is about friends who still drink. That was a tricky equation for me to solve, because I’d spent decades relying on alcohol to ease my nerves and insecurities in social situations. Like you, I found it very hard to be around drunk people when I tried to quit. Mostly, because they were still drinking. It was like walking into a room where EVERY SINGLE PERSON was dating my ex. I’d accepted that I had to quit drinking, but I never signed off on everyone else getting to continue. Happy hours came and went without me. Couples sat on the patio of a sunny sidewalk cafe, enjoying a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and was it wrong that I despised them? My friends posted blurry pictures on Facebook at 2 a.m. with glossy eyes and wobbly legs, and the childlike part of me that craves belonging would howl at the moon with anger and sadness. IT’S NOT FAIR! How come they get to drink, and I don’t get to drink?!?
I tried to hang out at bars. Bars had been sanctuaries to me, and I wanted to be one of those cool non-drinkers who didn’t let her non-drinking define her. So I would sit in the vinyl booth, pretending to be engaged, watching foamy pints of beer delivered into welcoming hands, but I would get so ANGRY. I’m sure on the outside, I was all, “Hahaha, that’s a GREAT joke,” but inside I was a raging she-beast of deprivation. (The fact that I can look happy and unflappable on the outside while I’m seething on the inside is part of why I loved drinking so much. I craved the release, but then I lost control of the dials. Problem + loads of alcohol, etc etc.) The longer I stayed in the bar, the more likely I was to lose my resolve. My brain became a justification machine: It’s just one drink, you deserve this. So I’d order one of those foamy pints, and I’d be freed from my misery for a minute, or an hour, or five hours, and then I would find myself on the other side of a 10-drink spree, choked with self-loathing. The bad math of binge drinking: Start out mad at the world, end up furious at yourself.
You write, “I find it really hard to be around drunk people.” Well, yeah. Drunk people can be very annoying. And I say this with love. I say this as someone who was a drunk person for many years, who feels about drunk people the way Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath feels about poor folks: Wherever there is a man puking Jager shots off a balcony, I’ll be there. Wherever there is a girl dribbling a Soft Taco Supreme down her shirt at 3am with her eyes droopy from Skyy Vodka, I’ll be there.
By which I mean, I’ll be there in SPIRIT, but in person? Not so much. Drunk people talk too loudly. They lean in way too close and repeat themselves. Drunk people have humped my leg, and honked my hooters. Let me ask you: If a person came along on the street, and squeezed your tits like a clown horn, would you think, “What a wonderful person to spend the next hour with.” No, you would think, “Get me out of here.” But if you’re built like you and me, V., you might also think, “Get me a drink.”
Ahhh, there we go again, trying to solve that problem with more alcohol. A lot of my relapses happened this way. I put myself into situations that were so unpleasant, the only way I could tolerate them was to drink. But if I was going to quit drinking—and STAY quit—I had to break this old habit. I could not keep pouring alcohol on my problems. I had to start addressing them directly. If I hated being around drunk people, I had to stop hanging out with drunk people. If I felt deprived in bars, I had to stop going to bars. When I was uncomfortable at a party, I had to go home early. These solutions sucked, because I felt empty and hopeless. I had 10 strains of FOMO. “Let’s get a drink” had been my bridge to the world, and I’d burned it.
In a better world, a person wrestling down an addiction would be welcomed back to the fold. Congratulations, you stopped harming yourself, let’s puppy-pile you with love and closeness again! But in the world we’ve been given, sobriety can be a social exile. And so I found myself stranded on the island of no drinking.
It’s not like this for everyone. I’ve seen people spark immediately to new lives post-booze. Some people join running clubs. They go to the gym, take up tennis, become obsessed with roller derby. Me? I dropped out of life completely. I cozied up inside a giant pan of lasagna, and watched multiple seasons of Friday Night Lights. On Saturdays, I took long walks across Manhattan, and developed a surprisingly fulfilling relationship with the sound of Marc Maron’s voice.
The modern world is designed for loneliness. Podcasts, Netflix, Amazon streaming. All that technology can disconnect us, yes, but it can also keep us tethered when real human contact feels like too much work. I spent six months in hiding, and do you know what I discovered in that time? How common it was. So many people drop out of life for MUCH more dire reasons than mine. Medical diagnoses, family crises, depression. They disappear from Facebook, and they probably scroll through pictures on the blue side of midnight, imagining how happy everyone else is, what a wild party is going on out there in the world of wobbly legs and glassy eyes—although the fact that you untagged yourself in all those pictures, V., calls into question how much “fun” that party really was. Most of us are struggling. That’s probably why we’re so eager to post pictures that suggest otherwise.
One of the reasons I loved drinking was that it brought me closer to people. They spilled their confessions. They shared their secret hearts. But was this really closeness, or just some side effect of inebriation? I threw my arms around so many strangers on a street corner: “This is my new best friend!” And I never saw her again. Poof, smoke. People ask me all the time about drunken one-night stands, but my real promiscuity was with my friendship. Everyone at the bar got a little piece of me. How I loved being loved. And it wasn’t until I got sober that I started wondering: Which of these people are my actual friends, and which people are my “friends”?
Time revealed the answer to me. It took about half a year for me to start hanging out with people again, but when I did, I noticed something fascinating. I could feel, in a lightning flash, whether or not I felt safe with that person. It was as though I’d discovered a friendship litmus test, one I would encourage anyone to try. Hang out with your friends without a drop of alcohol. Notice how you feel. Are you comfortable? Do you have easy conversation? Is this a friend whose company you enjoy, or is this a “friend” whose dumb conversation habits and grating voice make you want to drink immediately? Is this a person you want to stay close to, and build trust by revealing your true self—or is this a person you really only liked because you had alcohol in common?
I had been pretending with a lot of people. Pretending to like them, pretending to like myself. Sobriety was an opportunity to stand back, and ask what I’d been trying to hide. A new equation emerged: “Problem — alcohol = Opportunity to FIX THE PROBLEM.” In the first few years of my sobriety, I started to address a lot of my core unhappiness. A few solutions I found: If you can’t afford to live in New York, move away from New York. If you don’t like the way your body feels when you eat like a competitive hot dog champion, make different choices about how you eat. If you don’t feel comfortable with a guy, don’t sleep with him. Don’t sleep with him! V., do you realize how long it took me to figure that one out? I spent years drinking through discomfort with men, which is so messed up. Why would you want to have sex with someone you’re not even comfortable with?
Every time I felt uncomfortable, in social or romantic or even private moments, I drank to override the feeling. When I finally broke this habit, and suffered through the adjustment period, I began to feel at home more places in the world. My friends’ couches. A baseball game. Prospect Park at sundown. You would not believe how big the world is outside a bar—it keeps going, and going. I know you’re worried that quitting drinking means no one will want to hang out with you, and nobody will want to date you. Actually, you just made room for the people who do.
My friendships—my real friendships—all got stronger in sobriety. Richer, deeper, more genuine. Most of my friends still drink, and I don’t even notice if they have a glass of wine with dinner. I don’t go to bars much, but the other night, I went to my old stomping grounds for a trivia game, and it was a blast. (Yes, we won.) It’s not fair that I can’t drink like other people. But it’s also not fair that I talked my way out of two DUIs and doggy-paddled around inside a keg of beer for more than a decade while other people ran face-first into real loss. I’m so glad I finally started to see it: How much I’d been given, and how much other people were doing without. If you stay quiet and listen, you can hear them. They’re not always posting to social media, so you have to pay attention. But they’re out there, all these people in the world living without SOMETHING they once loved, stronger and wiser for the experience. You can find them. They will help you find your way.
I started going to 12-step meetings. AA isn’t for anyone, but it was a return to the world for me. I went to dinner with a woman I met there. She reminded me a lot of myself, in a good way. She had a demanding job, and came from a nice family, but she had been drinking so much of her life away and she wanted to make other choices now. We ate at one of those sidewalk cafes, a bottle of San Pellegrino in the frosty silver canister where bottles of wine used to be, and we laughed. Oh my God, we were laughing. Honest-to-goodness laughter like sun piercing through storm clouds. She looked at me at one point and said, “Is it weird that I just thought about how I’d like to get drunk with you?” And I said, “No, that doesn’t seem weird at all.”
It was all we knew. We were smart, successful women, but drinking was how we had learned intimacy, and that day on the patio we were starting to learn a new route. You will learn one too, V. You will learn a new route to friendship, and you will learn a new route to sex, one that leaves you feeling happy and whole rather than scared and ashamed. You will not need to drink to be around the people you love, because you will no longer need to drink in order to be “you.”
And you will not be alone. Because when you stop hiding, people can find you.
Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” now out in paperback. Follow her on Twitter (@sarahhepola) and Instagram (@thesarahhepolaexperience).
Illustration by Angelica Alzona